Slumberland

Release: Friday, November 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: David Guion; Michael Handelman 

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jason Momoa; Marlow Barkley; Chris O’Dowd; Weruche Opia; Kyle Chandler; India de Beaufort 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Slumberland is another one of those adaptations where ignorance really is bliss. You could watch this entire spectacle of Look How Much Money Netflix Has and have no idea it is actually inspired by an early twentieth century comic strip created by famed American cartoonist Winsor McCay. That’s because this expensive-looking but cheaply told fantasy adventure merely uses the iconic weekly sketch as a springboard for Jason Momoa-related shenanigans and a whole boatload of pretty but vapid CGI.

Comparisons are almost rendered pointless given how little the Netflix original, directed by The Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence, actually resembles the comic. The latest attempt to adapt the property is a visual adventure that flits between wild dreamscapes and waking-world tediums. The premise is loosely based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and its protagonist’s penchant for drifting off into crazy adventures only to awaken in his own bed in the final panel of each strip. Here the vignettes are discarded in favor of a simple tale of a girl trying to reunite with her father in her dreams.

In a gender-swapped role newcomer Marlow Barkley inhabits the lead character of Nemo with natural confidence. She starts off the movie living an idyllic life just off the mainland in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with tales of his adventures at sea chasing after elusive magical pearls. This all comes crashing down when Peter one day does not return and Nemo is forced to move to the city with her socially awkward uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman. We come to learn Peter and Philip were once thick as thieves, having epic adventures as kids. But after a fall-out Philip retreated into himself and has since lived a dreary and robotic existence.

As a story about learning to deal with grief and accepting change Slumberland has the potential to be a real winner, especially when you have a good lead performance from Barkley that helps foster sympathy. There are a couple of poignant moments along the way but whatever sense of growth and maturity there is supposed to be takes such a backseat to the eye-popping landscape across which Nemo traverses — at first accompanied only by her plush toy pig, creatively named ‘Pig’ (parents should not be surprised to see this one pop up on Christmas lists this year) and, eventually, the colorful and buffoonish outlaw Flip (Momoa), who has been in Slumberland for so long he can’t remember who he is in reality.

Not that he seems to mind. In the dream world there are rules and Flip seems to have violated several of them simply by hanging around and crashing other people’s dreams. Agent Green (Weruche Opia), representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, is determined to lock him up once and for all, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse action caper inside a dream-state (something that sounds way more interesting written down). Momoa is clearly having a field day going full-blown Johnny Depp, his garish wardrobe a combination of Captain Jack Sparrow and something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He brings an energy that may wear a little thin after two hours for the older-than-pre-teen crowd, but also makes such a routine plot feel somehow more exciting.

The world-building is undoubtedly picturesque, despite some awkward moments where you can actually see the actors standing on their marks on a big slab of concrete in a sound stage. Away from these, Slumberland unfolds into a vast network of surreal imagery and outlandish ideas in which nuns fantasize about being salsa dancers in rooms made entirely out of butterflies and Canadians are reduced to dreaming of geese the size of small airplanes. At its center, the Sea of Nightmares — a dark and forbidding region concealing the very pearls Nemo’s father had been describing. Pearls that give the possessor whatever they desire. And as we learn along the way, the alluring gems aren’t the only thing that actually exist in the real world.

Despite some genuinely nice moments, you can’t help but feel like Lawrence misses the opportunity to extract a more interesting plot out of such an idea-rich concept. To his credit he isn’t attempting to remain faithful to the comic. It just would have been nice if what he chose to do instead was something more inspired. As a visual director, it sort of makes sense what he does with Slumberland but his flashy approach doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest movie. 

Next-level waterbed

Moral of the Story: I would describe it as Inception for kids, but that might oversell the amount of thinking this movie requires. Elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland combine with the modern slickness of Stranger Things. The selling point is not the comic strip (Winsor McCay doesn’t even get credited) but instead Jason Momoa, who gets along great with kid actors apparently. If nothing else it’s nice to see him playing to a younger audience. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Did you ever figure it out? What the lighthouse is for?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Cloverfield Paradox

Release: Sunday, February 4, 2018 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Oren Uziel

Directed by: Julius Onah

The Cloverfield Paradox, a surprise addition to the Cloverfield collection which debuted on the heels of Super Bowl LII, is itself an experiential paradox. How did I just sacrifice an hour and forty-five minutes of my time and yet feel like I watched nothing at all? I certainly didn’t just watch a Cloverfield movie. Yet they’re telling me I did.

This third chapter revolves around a group of earthlings orbiting our planet in the space station Cloverfield. The year is 2028. For two years, while basking in the ultimate bird’s eye view of home, the crew, a united front of international experts, have been unsuccessful in using a particle accelerator to stem the tide of a global energy crisis. Of course, operating such a scary and complicated device carries with it all sorts of disastrous consequences. Like, you could rip apart the fabric of space time and inadvertently introduce xenomorphs into our reality. Or worse, Jar Jar Binks from a galaxy even further away.

After what seems to be a major breakthrough the crew find themselves not celebrating by dousing themselves in the champagne of the heavens, but instead wildly off-course, distanced from Earth and in ways that are kinda-sorta hard to explain. With a lack of signposts pointing them down the right galactic avenue and with bizarre occurrences on board the ship becoming more frequent, how will our fearless heroes ever make it back home? And if they do, to what degree will their space madness and the anarchy down below have advanced?

The Cloverfield Paradox is populated by quality actors who play their parts well enough. But the script has no idea what to do with any of them so it just caps off their trajectories with a fancy, thoughtful death to make them seem unique. It’s good to see that Chris O’Dowd‘s sense of humor is not lost in space, and he also wins the Most Interesting Character Award by way of possessing one of the most interesting arms arcs. Someone loses their mind then has worms explode out of their body Alien-style, only to have their corpse violated post-mortem. There are other bizarro occurrences, but I’m compiling a Best Of list here and those (A) don’t make the cut and (B) are more spoiler-rich.

Not that I would necessarily feel evil for divulging more secrets. After all, it is amazing how much damage a film title can do. At least one writer has interpreted Oren Uziel’s Event Horizon-esque plot as an origins story. After double-checking, the internet seems to be in this writer’s corner. If this is true, if Paradox is intended to lay the groundwork for the past (Cloverfield (2008) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)), it manifests as one of the weakest, most poop-throwingly dumb origins stories I have ever seen. I’m left wondering whether there would have been fewer issues had the film retained its working title God Particle. Bye-bye, burden of expectation. What we would be left with is just another generic tale of how highly qualified astronauts lose their cool at all the wrong moments yet make just enough right calls to SURVIVE SPACE!!

Recommendation: A generic sci-fi thriller set in space masquerading under the banner of a Cloverfield sequel/prequel. The one advantage of this particular release is you won’t have to travel far for the disappointment. +10 Bonus Points for convenience, but then deduct 100 for the bait-and-switch. This isn’t Cloverfield; this is a much less violent, less Sam Neill-eye-gouging Event Horizon

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Calvary

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Release: Friday, August 1, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Behold, The Passion of the Brendan Gleeson.

In John Michael McDonagh’s second collaboration with the lovable Dubliner, we get to watch a good Catholic priest endure a brutal psychological and emotional beating for virtually no reason whatsoever. To the tune of Mel Gibson’s graphic portrayal of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazereth, McDonagh takes a wholesome lead and breaks his spirit slowly and painfully.

It’s disheartening to watch because this is Brendan Gleeson and despite how good he is as Father James, there’s simply nothing funny about his character, his circumstances or the things he says, will say, or be forced to say or do. Any amusement brought about by Gleeson’s jovial rotundness remains frustratingly out of reach, sealed off by walls of misery and suffering. And if all of this is indeed meant to amuse (it’s billed as comedy/drama), we’ve stumbled upon the Guinness of black comedies here, folks — this is some dark, heavy stuff.

A mysterious parishioner makes a threat against Father James’ life one sunny afternoon, and tells him — a soul obscured by the privacy of the confession booth — that he has seven days to get his affairs in order. Asked why, the voice tries to reason thus: if you kill a corrupt leader the world fails to notice. Everyone ultimately views the act as justified on the level that that individual deserved what was coming. When harm befalls someone free of blame, the shock of the injustice would surely, ideally ignite the spark of rage within the community at large.

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll reemphasize the cynicism displayed by McDonagh’s filming sensibilities. Specific to this considerably bleak affair, he’s a strong advocate of the notion that misery loves company. His cameras force us to trudge through a town filled to the brim with unsavory characters whose collective depravity stems from a combination of miserable luck and self-made misery. The gang’s all here: perverts, angry drunks, doctors who are also atheists. The daughter of a priest becomes suicidal after the father’s failure to establish strong ties with family after the death of the mother. Yawn. The trigger for her own personal calvary is woeful and quite honestly annoying.

Enter Chris O’Dowd, and — I’m hesitant to admit this in fear of interrupting this free flowing vitriol  — at least he contributes to the picture its most complex character. As the town butcher, he doesn’t seem to mind who is sleeping with his wife. It’s only a piece of meat after all. There’s a lonely millionaire who favors luxury over happiness (this character is nothing more than a stereotype); a wife-beater; a washed-up American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) hanging on for dear life, in a pretty literal sense; and then we have the lead actor’s own son, Domnhall in an admittedly effective and borderline cameo appearance as a completely depraved, emotionless prisoner, guilty of some crime you’re probably better off not knowing about.

stoic foolish Father James (seriously man, just get out of town) makes the rounds to all of these wounded souls and more, all while the knowledge of his possible impending death hangs over his head. One shouldn’t call it a dereliction of duties if one’s life has been personally threatened in church. You’d be forgiven for taking a sabbatical in the face of an apparent act of terrorism — technically speaking, the threat is being made against this church as well as the priest. I suppose then, there’s the ultimate conflict of not having a story to film. That’s a pretty thin veil though, considering all that this intimate window into life in Northern Ireland happens to capture.

Calvary is a visually gorgeous film, one laced with scenic vistas and rich greens and blacks (beautifully emphasized in the above movie poster). It is also far too well-acted to completely dismiss. Despite the annoyance of Reilly’s character, this is not her fault and she handles a nuanced and fragile individual convincingly. She also happens to be one of the least offensive characters on display, a relative compliment. Little needs to be said about Gleeson, who happens to extend his streak of compelling protagonists with this peculiar nonpareil.

At the end of the day, despite deep convictions and some fine performances, the final product cannot be described as an enjoyable or even worthwhile experiment. You may as well add that to the list of things it shares with Mel Gibson’s relentless bloodletting farce.

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2-5Recommendation: I really can’t say that I recommend seeing Calvary unless you possess a masochistic streak in you. It’s next-to-no fun for most of the duration as the characters, while on some level identifiable, are not ones you’d ever want to share a room with, much less intimate confessions. Kudos goes to Gleeson and O’Dowd, however, for a pair of stellar performances that go beyond acting. I at times felt these people really were this far gone. That doesn’t exactly make me feel any better about the fact that sometimes the world is just evil; that there are priests out there touching kids. A fact this film all but rails against like a child in a grocery store unable to buy his candy bar.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “I think there’s too much talk about sins and and not enough about virtues.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com